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The Lessons of Carter…

“I would like the last Guinea worm to die before I do.” – former President Jimmy Carter on his campaign to wipe out the parasitic disease that has historically afflicted millions in Africa.   

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It took Jimmy Carter’s brain cancer to show me what is so sorely missing from American politics – humility and class; lack of self-pity and abundance of humor.

Mention Carter at a dinner party or a ball game and you’ll almost certainly get some spirited conversation going. The comment will likely range from “the worst modern president” to “a smart guy just not up to the job” to the “best ex-president we’ve ever had” to “history will treat him pretty well.”

ATLANTA, GA - AUGUST 20:  Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

ATLANTA, GA – AUGUST 20: Former President Jimmy Carter discusses his cancer diagnosis during a press conference at the Carter Center. on August 20, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The news conference last week where Carter calmly, factually, stoically and with humor and grace discussed his cancer, its treatment and his long life was a sterling reminder for me of what a fundamentally decent and quintessential “American” man he is and has always been. Who in the current field attempting to grab the brass ring of the presidency has even a fraction of Carter’s self-awareness and humility?

When asked if he had any regrets, Carter said he wished he might have been smart enough to have sent another helicopter on the hostage rescue mission to Iran in 1979. Had that mission succeeded – a crash in the desert doomed the chance – Carter would have had his Bin Laden moment and might well have won re-election against Ronald Reagan in 1980. A less secure, less comfortable-in-their-own-skin public person would just have said in response to that question – “Regrets? I have no regrets…”

During the run-up to the remarkable election of 1976, I interviewed both Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. Fresh out of college, I was working at a small radio station in eastern Iowa when Mrs. Carter came to town. In her own quiet and persistent way Rosalyn was pursuing the breakthrough “Iowa strategy” that allowed a little known Georgia governor to launch a successful presidential campaign. Carter was the first to understand that Iowa’s quirky caucus system could be a launching pad for a little-known candidate. I don’t remember what I asked the spouse of the candidate in the fall of 1975, but I do remember her poise and kindness. She had all day, or so it seemed, for a bumbling young radio reporter.

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

By early 1976, I had moved to television and to Idaho, and Carter made a stop in Boise while campaigning for votes in that state’s caucus. I distinctly remember elbowing into a hot, sticky and very crowded meeting room at the old Holiday Inn near the Boise airport to watch Carter meet the press. After answering the obligatory questions from the traveling press corps – I particularly remember a hectoring Sam Donaldson of ABC – Carter took time to do one-on-one interviews with we locals. I think I asked a probing question about whether the candidate thought he could win Idaho’s caucus vote and, of course, he said he could. He didn’t. Favorite son Senator Frank Church entered the race and won Idaho.

Still my memory of Carter all these years later – and of also of President Gerald Ford, who I also interviewed in 1976 – is that of a low-key, thoughtful, decent men in control of their egos and motivated, as we hope all candidates are, by the right reasons.

Carter’s quiet and controlled personality was once mocked by many who saw the Georgia peanut farmer as out-classed by the Georgetown set, but they had it wrong. Carter possessed real American values. He regularly taught Sunday school, – he still does – built homes for Habitat for Humanity and carried his own suit bag off Air Force One. The same quiet, understated, but effective approach has marked the work of the Carter Center in Atlanta, which has focused on health issues in Africa and the advancement of peace through democratic institutions around the world.

Carter in Nigeria

Carter in Nigeria

Carter’s post-presidential good work earned him a Nobel Prize and with nary a hint of scandal about money or purposes.

Carter’s after White House life stands in stark contrast to the activities of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Carter has let his good work speak for itself, while the Clinton’s work is subsumed amid the flaunting of their big money connections and holidays in the Hamptons. Humble it isn’t and Carter could teach them a thing or two if they where humble enough to listen.

Faced with one last and inevitably losing fight, Jimmy Carter has again struck a grace note, as his one-time speechwriter James Fallows has observed. “The 1970s are so dis-esteemed,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “and Carter has been so vilified (in counterpoint to the elevation of Reagan), and the entire era is now so long in the past, that many people may wonder how Carter could have become president in the first place.”

The key to answering that question, Fallows said, and I agree, is contained in Carter’s approach to his own discussion of his perilous health and his exemplary life. If you haven’t seen the clip you should. This is the way real people talk minus the calculation and self-centeredness of political life.

The common narrative around Carter’s presidency is that he failed, but history, which rarely treats one-term presidents well, will record that the power of his will brought Israel and Egypt to peace at Camp David and his Baptist sense of right and wrong helped power the controversial decision to relinquish to the Panamanians the canal we once stole fair and square. Completion of the Alaska conservation legislation – during a lame duck session of Congress no less – will forever rank as one of the greatest conservation accomplishments by any administration. Carter’s focus on human rights in foreign affairs, again much mocked during his tenure, still demands, as it should, a central place in American policy.

Carter with Egypt's Sadat and Israel's Begin

Carter with Egypt’s Sadat and Israel’s Begin

But here is the real measure of Carter: his quiet, thoughtful approach to public life during his presidency and after is a genuine model for how to behave in the public arena. He would never have won a shouting match with a Christie or a name-calling contest with a Trump. Today we identify political leaders by their cult of secrecy and sense of entitlement, their self-absorption or that all-too-familiar strut of self-assurance without the burden of accomplishment. Carter was – and is – different.

America suffers a civility and humility deficit. It’s reflected in our politics and our popular culture. There is a coarseness, a meanness, an emptiness that sucks the air out of what is really important. The insufferable Ted Cruz, for example, a man with more self-regard than public accomplishment, waited hardly a day after Carter’s cancer announcement before taking to the stump to lambast the former president’s record. Nice touch.

Carter said he’s at ease with whatever comes, his faith intact, thankful for friends and for his vast and important experiences. We all reach this point eventually, staring our own mortality full in the face and most, I suspect, would hope to exhibit Jimmy Carter’s sense of peace about a life of purpose, meaning and service. 

For one, brief moment last week Jimmy Carter reminded us what a well-composed public life can look like. It’s not about bluster and bling, not about the nasty and fleeting. It is about decency, composure, respect, modesty and, yes, good humor. God knows we need some more of all that and a 90-year old man with brain cancer reminds us that he has done his part to try and help make all of us a little better. We should all be so lucky. 

 

Did Obama Get the Wrong Nobel?

Updike and Marc This Just In: the Nobel Prizes are…Gee, Political

 

The great American writer John Updike never won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He should have.

When Updike came to Idaho a few years back, I spent a marvelous day with him and asked if, considering his enormous body of work, it was a disappointment never to have won the biggest prize in literature.

After all, Faulkner won. So did Hemingway and Steinbeck. He got that marvelous twinkle in his eye and just smiled and said something about not writing for awards. Nonetheless, I got the sense that the snub was a disappointment, but one he had become resigned to.

Personal opinion – Updike should have won the Nobel, but did not because of the Nobel Committee’s alleged (more recent) bias against American writers.


Some of the rap has been that Updike, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Cheever, just to name a few, are too commercial and not sufficiently literary by Nobel standards. Bunk. Decisions about awarding Nobel Prizes are political whether we’re talking peace, prose or poetry.

I’ll leave the dissection of the Obama Peace Prize to all those who have already had their say, but I did take note of two particular reactions.

Senator John McCain, as the LA Times noted, has once again proven” that he is still out of touch with his party.” McCain told CNN, “I think all of us were surprised at the decision. But I think Americans are always pleased when their president is recognized by something on this order.” The old McCain.

A second reaction – Louisa Thomas – at Newsweek suggests the president should have won the literature prize on the strength of his two excellent books.

Who knows, Obama may get a second chance for a Nobel. Winston Churchill won the literature prize in part, no doubt, because he was a great political leader, but also because he was one hell of a good writer and had accumulated a substantial body of great work.

I was thinking this morning of the intensity of the 2008 political campaign just a year ago. The daily drama and intensity of that unforgettable campaign has faded, but amidst all Palin, Bill Ayres, fist bumps and Joe the Plumber, not to mention the financial meltdown, who would have thought we’d be talking about the Nobel Peace Prize and an American president 12 months later?

Like him or not, Barack Obama has been a transforming figure on the world stage. His challenge may ultimately be to live up to all the world’s out sized expectations.

 

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As for the great Updike, just because it is so good, here is one of his last short poems. Appropriate, I think.

Requiem

 

It came to me the other day:
Were I to die, no one would say,
“Oh, what a shame! so young, so full
Of promise – depths unplumbable!”

 

Instead, a shrug and tearless eyes
Will greet my overdue demise;
The wide response will be, I know,
“I thought he died a while ago.”

 

For life’s a shabby subterfuge,
And death is real, and dark, and huge.
The shock of it will register
Nowhere but where it will occur.